Crucial Skills®

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What to Do When Your Coworkers Dismiss and Ignore You

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a new member on a team. I find that when I wish my teammates good morning, they do not respond. Since I’m new and trying to learn, I occasionally ask questions of one of my teammates. When I do, she typically responds, “Go ask so-and-so,” rather than helping me. Another teammate cuts me off when I ask questions. I am unable to finish my question or ask clarifying questions. I need help communicating with this team. Any suggestions?

Signed
The Outsider

Dear Outsider,

I’m going to make a big assumption in responding to you. I’m going to assume that your teammates are reasonable, rational, and decent people. I’ll also assume they are imperfect, subject to misjudgment, harried and impatient at times. In other words, I’m going to assume that they are kind of like you and me.

Unlike many inquiries to Crucial Skills, you are not describing a concern with a single individual. You’re describing consistent behavior across multiple teammates. It’s possible that you just happen to have a bunch of brusque colleagues. But before concluding that, I’d urge you to entertain another possibility. If multiple people are responding to you in what you see as similarly dismissive ways, the common variable is you.

One of the first principles of interpersonal effectiveness is Work on Me First. This isn’t a principle of self-abuse. It’s a principle of self-empowerment. It doesn’t suggest that you let others mistreat you. What it counsels us to do is scrutinize the human tendency to tell victim and villain stories. When others behave in ways we don’t like, the natural human response is to tell ourselves a mental story that showcases our virtues and absolves us of responsibility for the problem. “I’m new on the team, so of course I have a lot of needs!” “I say good morning to colleagues like polite people do!” “I ask a lot of questions because I am a humble and dutiful employee!” Etc., etc. By so doing, we make ourselves out to be innocent victims of the mistreatment of others.

The second dangerous tendency we have is to villainize the other person. We collect grievances and ignore exceptions. I notice every time my morning greeting is not reciprocated but dismiss the times that it is. I lock onto the times my question isn’t answered and ignore the times it is.

The best advice I can offer is to work on yourself first. Challenge the story you’re telling yourself. For example, ask:

  • Am I being insensitive in the timing of my questions?
  • Am I over-asking rather than figuring things out on my own?
  • Have I given offense somehow?
  • Have I come across as needy, high-maintenance and demanding?
  • Have I built a reputation of being low-maintenance and high-value add, or the reverse?

My guess is if you soberly examine these and similar questions, you’ll find room for improvement. And if my initial assumption is correct—that your coworkers are reasonable, rational, and decent people—they will begin to respond to you differently as you sincerely work on improving.

I wish you all the best,
Joseph

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21 thoughts on “What to Do When Your Coworkers Dismiss and Ignore You”

  1. Laura

    Great response! I also wonder if there is a backstory that Outsider doesn’t know. For example, maybe he/she/they were hired instead of someone the team members wanted (perhaps an internal candidate or a friend of the group) and there is misdirected resentment.

    1. Paula M. Kramer

      Good thinking, Laura.

  2. Debbie

    That is a great approach to start with yourself first, but in the event these people are actually the issue would have been nice to give some advice in that direction. And if as Laura stated, they wanted someone else, it’s not the newbies fault so their behavior needs to not reflect that.

  3. Barb

    Maybe ask “have I offended you in some way? If so, it was not my intent.” It sounds like maybe there is a relationship problem to sort out with the teammates.

  4. vickie

    I agree with Debbie. Everybody should not be acting rudely, regardless of the circumstances. A new person on a team should at least be given some welcoming grace! It seems these people may not be good teamplayers to new people for whatever reason.. Maybe this person wasn’t properly introduced to the team by management or what if he/she was given a position someone else wanted. There’s no room for rudeness. It costs nothing to be nice, even if you’re faking it. The newbie should have a heart to heart conversation with each teammate separately to see if they can get to know each other one on on, then as a team.

    1. Angela Williams

      Yes! Schedule a 30-minute one-on-one meeting with each team member to get to know each other better. At this point you don’t necessarily need to bring up any issues or have a heart-to-heart about how they’re treating you. You want to connect with them and build trust. Just a conversation about their hobbies and interests, how they came to the company and their past employment experiences, maybe what they like most and least about the job, and share some things about your history and interests. That goes a long way to understanding each other and easing the newbie tension.

    2. Paula M. Kramer

      You’re right, vickie. Newbies should always be welcomed into the team. The culture at this company is suspect and management creates the culture.

  5. Mary C.

    Let’s also assume people cannot be reasonable nor rational. I have worked on staffs and in organizations with people who have moderate to severe mental health issues. This is not playing the victim card but acknowledging reality.

    1. Sonia

      this is an excellent point, i am very much an extrovert and now through learning i have found that some coworkers are introverts and when my big mouth comes around like Susie sunshine- the introvert it literally frozen scared.. So i learn and adjust- do not take things personally-also working with people who literally do have a mental illness their work habits and skill sets literally go up and down-definitely ask but maybe not open ended questions , more direct like “How can I assist you in this project or what is my role-get clarification on what your teammates expect out of you.

    2. Paula M. Kramer

      That is reality. And some reality is that groups of coworkers prefer to be exclusive and standoffish.

  6. Cindy

    I’d suggest that you don’t take it personally, and instead, bring in cookies. It’s hard to change team culture, and as well, it’s hard to work in a bubble without team interaction. Maybe it’s not the right fit for you, and you should look elsewhere – this would not be your fault, but the fault of management. I don’t think good advice was given here.

  7. Annette

    I agree with many of the comments posted here. Yes, there is always room to look at self and make improvements, but I too have worked with groups of people that were simply rude and unhelpful. Many organization mission statements advocate for some type of kindness or helpfulness which seems to be lacking among the group from Outsider’s story. How unfortunate that these behaviors can cause good, hard-working people to leave for other positions.

  8. Robert Arends

    I might suggest to observe the group to discover the personality types and also if there is a ‘defacto leader’ amongst the group…do the others mimic that person? If you can identify a ‘straight shooter’ person in the midst, ask them if you have done something offensive to anyone or the group as a whole. You may get the information you’re looking for. The previous idea mentioned to bring in goodies is good, bring in coffee/doughnuts or whatever the team would like. If folks partake, particularly the ‘defacto leader’, then you may likely be warmed up to given some time provided you’re competent at the job and ammenable to the group’s personality. If not, consider the next statement…

    Do as first suggested and introspect/adjust yourself as much as you can live with and be sincere about it. And, as mentioned previously, if nothing adjusts, think seriously about working elsewhere, there may be bigger work issues than you’re aware of.

  9. Renee

    I agree with all these suggestions.

    When you interact with your teammates, consider that you might be talking too much in an attempt to become one of the team. After you say good morning, just smile and get to work. If you have questions, jot them down and schedule a time in advance to go over them. Make sure you record the answers, so you don’t ask the same question twice. If you’ve been referred to someone outside the team, maybe they are the expert. Ask that person what kind of training they can provide or the types of questions they can answer. That person might also direct you to others who can provide training or answer questions.

    You can also train yourself. Are there handbooks, regulations, policies or guidelines that you can study? Do you have access to files or electronic folders where you can review the work your team did over the past year? What about past meeting minutes?

    If you are new to the organization, you might also consider befriending people outside your team. Take them to lunch or strike up conversations in the break room. Just be careful it doesn’t infringe on your work time.

  10. Eleanor

    Good advice so far, especially with a range of options the Outsider can choose from based on their comfort level and style.
    I will suggest two other paths.
    First, try talking to one person at a time in an individual setting rather than the whole group. Keep it task oriented but friendly, making individual connections to dissolve whatever is going on with this mean team.
    Second, ask your supervisor if there is someone who can serve as an onboarding guide or “buddy.” It’s then part of that person’s job to answer your questions and help you be successful.
    Hang in there!

  11. Nikki B Stein, PMP (@nikki_pmp4389)

    I had a similar experience once. It turned out not to be me or anything I did or didn’t do.
    I had been recruited for a small division (approx 300 people), for a Senior Team Lead position. I was to be the 4th person in that seat in the past 5 years. The executive leader who hired me thought the issue was someone in a group from whom we got our requirements and direction. I have very strong interpersonal skills and with close to 30 years experience was not afraid to try to heal this dysfunction. After an initial settling in period, when things seemed to be going well and I was getting to know everyone and building relationships, I noticed people pulling away and becoming distant. They wouldn’t look at me when we passed in the hall, they ignored me if I met them in the break room, they were very critical of the wording of every single email and often added a number of senior people to email chains with their criticisms, no one appeared to even notice when I had my arm in a sling for several weeks… They still showed up to meetings and did their work, but that was it.
    I truly felt invisible. I tried to take individuals out to lunch to talk and build rapport. Nothing worked and I become more and more isolated. After almost two years, I allowed myself to be recruited to another company.
    After I gave notice, during goodbye conversations, I realized that the root cause was the Junior Team Lead, who had been there for many years. He wanted to be the Senior Team Lead (there was only one of each and the division was too small for any hope for an additional position). The management of our group did not feel he had the skills and aptitude for the Senior position and kept backfilling the Senior position from the outside. So the Junior Team Lead, having been there for so many years and knowing everyone in the organization so very personally, got everyone to literally ostracize the Senior Team Lead, until that person eventually left and the position became open again.
    Just before I left, our group got a different manager. The Junior person wasted no time. Even before I was out the door, he put forth an argument for promotion and they bumped him up. I did “out” him to the executive leader who had brought me in, but he couldn’t override the new manager (different reporting hierarchy). I noticed on LinkedIn that he changed jobs about a year later, which made me think that management’s assessment was valid, that he wasn’t cut out for that level. But he did manage to outlast anyone else in that seat.
    In hindsight, now knowing the real cause of the issue, I’m not sure if there was anything I could have done to have won over her devout colleagues.

    1. Maria

      I have been in a similar situation. I think you should look to see if there is something you are doing at first, it is solid advice. I do wish that this post recognized that certain work dynamics you walk into are outside of your control. Just like in your case, often you walk into a position some else wanted and they are supported by all of the others. Clearly, that individual should not have the position if they rally everyone to be unkind to whoever gets that position.

      1. Peter

        Thanks Nikki for the helpful example and its details. Thanks Maria for your reply.

  12. Sarah R.

    I’m the new(er) person on my team, and I ran into similar issues. Joseph Grenny and many of the other commenters have offered good suggestions. I’d like to add: Is there anything you can do to lighten the load for a teammate? I’ve approached my co-workers with small favors like, “Do you want me to take care of (easy issue) since you seem to be tied up with (big thorny problem)?” Or, “I’ll take the minutes this meeting since Bob had to leave early.” Those little favors can go a long way in thawing the chill. But be careful not to create the impression that you’re the go-pher for the team. Don’t be overly generous and communicate that your time is prioritized as well.

  13. sue

    Great response! I have witnessed this victim. Excellent questions for self reflection.

  14. Pradeep Tiwari

    Changes have to begin with self so wait and watch with bit patience is the key. Complaining and forming opinion about coworker without giving reasonable time to them to get acquainted with newbie should be avoided.
    many comments provided valuable insight and i personally are grateful to all who posted their views on the situation described. IT IS WE WHO HAS TO CHANGE; IF WE GO ON CHANGING OTHER AND DESIRE A SET OF BEHAVIOR FROM THEM, IT WOULD BE US WHO WOULD SUFFER AT THE JOURNEY……

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